I’ve been reading the widely discredited and lambasted anthology from the 50s called Mass Culture, edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White and compiling wrk by Dwight MacDonald, Ortega Y Gasset, Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, Clement Greenberg, and other early critics of popular culture. The anthology is widely dismissed today for its allegedly unenlightened elitist perspective on pop culture, and for its routine condescension toward the undifferentiated massses. The anthology is not nearly as monolithic as its detractors maintain, and actually affords an interesting picture of what immediate reactions to mass-produced culture were, before the ideology that sustains mass-produced commodity art’s existence as purely natural had really settled in. Thus there is a freshness to their iteration of the argument that still dominates cultural studies — does pop culture stultify and infantilize the “masses” or does it supply a larger number of people with material culture to improve and expand their capacities for cultural expression and self-definition? Regular readers of this blog know where I stand on the question. I think accusations of elitism are a canard, and I think the empowerment afforded by most commodity culture is already circumscribed within bounds tolerable to those in power. I think the form consumer culture takes robs as much pleasure as it gives, especially since it mimics the pleasure-hunger cycles of addiction to function.
Cultural studies, when it pursues an affirmative, celebratory course as it often did in the 1990s (as Thomas Frank documented in One Market Under God, loses its way and becomes an unwitting advertising arm for servicing niche markets. Leo Lowenthal’s outline of what theses social research ought to take is an excellent reminder of what the point of such inquiries should be, a reminder of why it is not frivolous to study pop effluvia. Conservatives love to ridicule such studies as wasteul trivia and patentently silly perhaps because they cut close to one of their most effective mechanisms of power. But practitioners of cultural studies fall into their trap when they allow such criticisms to set the terms of the debate, and try to justify pop-culture junk as inherently good, as worthy not as a means to sociological insight but as a work of art in and of itself.
Lowenthal points out that social research should not begin with market data, should not accept consumer choices as votes of assent. Consumer choices are already circumscribed by what is produced and what is publicized. Similarly, consumer choices are not the expression of an individual psychology, but are indicative of broader systems of social control. They are not reflections of a personal taste, but instead a reflection of the degre to which culture-industry profit motives are adhering and social control mechanisms are working. Tastes are shaped by the means of cultural production much more than the means are dictated by popular taste. Writes Lowenthal, “While it is true that people today behave as if there were a large free area of selection according to taste and while they tend to vote fanatically for or against a specific representation of popular culture, the question remains as to how such behavior is compatible with the actual elimination of free choice and the institutionalized repetition characteristic of all media.” In other words, how do we think the choice between McDonalds or Burger King is an expression of our total freedom and a example of our having the freedom to do and be what we want? And Lowenthal also raises what seems to be the most important question ( and most offensive to the affirmative pop-culture folks): “We wish to know whether the consummation of popular culture really presupposes a human being with preadult traits or whether modern man has a spilt personality: half mutilated child and half standardized adult. We want to know the mechanisms of interdependence between the pressures of professional life and the freedom from intellectual and aesthetic tension in which popular culture seems to induulge.” That’s what I want to know.